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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “Fromelles: Australia picks a fresh fight with Britain over a 100-year-old battle”

At The Conversation, James McConnel and Peter Stanley describe how a British-Australian dispute over commemorating a battle of the First World War brings contemporaries nationalisms into conflict with the imperial-era reality of a much closer and more complex British-Australian relationship of a century ago.

Although the subject of half a dozen books, including chapters of Australia’s detailed official history of the war, Fromelles has become the subject of misunderstanding and myth in Australia. It is supposed to have been “forgotten” (though it was long remembered as Fleurbaix – the name of the village from which Australian and British troops attacked – rather than Fromelles, which the Germans defended). It has become seen popularly as “the worst night in Australian military history” – a notorious instance in which callous and incompetent British generals sent Australians to their deaths for no purpose.

Fromelles was mounted as a feint to draw German troops away from the Somme and was the first major engagement on the Western Front involving the recently arrived Australian forces. While modern research has questioned the established view of the battle as a complete military failure, historian Gary Sheffield has argued that it nonetheless “further damaged Australian faith in British generalship, already shaken after Gallipoli”.

[. . .]

The reason for the high profile of Fromelles in Australia’s commemoration is that a mass grave, which had been overlooked in the post-war clean-up, was discovered in 2008 at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles where the Germans had buried 250 Australian and British dead in 1916. The discovery resulted in their remains being interred in the first new Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery opened on the Western Front in decades. Pheasant Wood cemetery soon became a place of pilgrimage for Australians visiting northern France in search of Australia’s Great War.

Awareness of the historical context of the battle has clearly informed some British coverage of the decision by the Australian Department for Veterans Affairs to invite only the families of Australians to the memorial ceremony this year. Coverage in the UK has suggested that “banning” the relatives of the 1,547 British casualties of Fromelles, exclusively focuses on the Australian soldiers lost in light of the smaller, but still significant, British casualties.

In response, an Australian spokesman noted in The Times (paywall) that Britain’s own Somme commemoration of July 1 2016 will only be open to British citizens. It’s clear the war’s centenary is being shaped by modern national and state agendas.

But there is an anachronism at the very heart of this spat because – as the military historian Andrew Robertshaw said: “A surprisingly high proportion of the Australian Imperial Force were not actually born in Australia.”

Written by Randy McDonald

February 15, 2016 at 10:25 pm

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